(Recommended Citation: Alighieri, Dante. Vita Nova. Trans. Andrew Frisardi. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2012.)
In the book of my memory—the part of it before which not much is legible—there is the heading Incipit vita nova. Under this heading I find the words which I intend to copy down in this little book; if not all of them, at least their essential meaning.
Nine times, the heaven of the light had returned to where it was at my birth, almost to the very same point of its orbit, when the glorious lady of my mind first appeared before my eyes—she whom many called Beatrice without even knowing that was her name. She had already been in this life long enough for the heaven of the fixed stars to have moved toward the east a twelfth of a degree since she was born, so that she was at the beginning of her ninth year when she appeared to me, and I saw her when I was almost at the end of my ninth. She appeared, dressed in a very stately color, a subdued and dignified crimson, girdled and adorned in a manner that was fitting for her young age.
At that time, truly, I say, the vital spirit, which dwells in the innermost chamber of the heart, started to tremble so powerfully that its disturbance reached all the way to the slightest of my pulses. And trembling it spoke these words: “Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur michi.”* At that time the animal spirit, which dwells in the high chamber to which all the spirits of sensation carry their perceptions, began to marvel, and speaking especially to the spirits of vision it said: “Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra.”† At that time the natural spirit, which dwells where our food is digested, started to cry, and crying it spoke these words: “Heu miser, quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps!”‡
From then on, I swear that Love dominated my soul, which was wedded to him so early, and began to rule me with such confidence and power, by means of the force my imagination lent him, there was no choice but for me to do whatever he wanted. Time after time he ordered me to search for where I might glimpse this youthful angel; so that in my boyhood I went searching for her often, and observed that her bearing was so dignified and praiseworthy that it can truly be said of her as Homer wrote: “She did not seem the daughter of a mortal man, but rather of a god.” And even though her image, which was constantly with me, was the means by which Love ruled me, it was so dignified in its power that it never allowed Love to govern me without the faithful counsel of reason, in those matters where such guidance was helpful. Since dwelling on the passions and actions of one so young is like telling a tall tale, I will leave that behind; and passing over many things that could be copied from the same source, I come to words written in my memory under larger paragraphs.
After so many days had passed that it was exactly nine years since the above-named apparition of this most gracious of women, on the last of these days that marvelous lady appeared to me dressed in pure white, between two gracious women, both of whom were older than she. And passing along a street, she turned her eyes in the direction of where I stood gripped by fear, and thanks to her ineffable benevolence and grace, which now is rewarded in eternal life, she greeted me with such power that then and there I seemed to see to the farthest reaches of beatitude.
It was exactly the ninth hour of that day when her intoxicatingly lovely greeting came to me. And since it was the first time her words had reached my ears, I felt such bliss that I withdrew from people as if I were drunk, away to the solitude of my room, and settled down to think about this most graceful of women. And thinking about her, a sweet sleep came over me, in which appeared a tremendous vision.
I seemed to see a fiery cloud in my room, inside which I discerned a figure of a lordly man, frightening to behold. And it was marvelous how utterly full of joy he seemed. And among the words that he spoke, I understood only a few, including: “Ego dominus tuus.”§ In his arms I thought I saw a sleeping person, naked but for a crimson silken cloth that seemed to be draped about her, who, when I looked closely, I realized was the lady of the saving gesture, she who earlier that day had deigned to salute me. And in one of his hands it seemed that he held something consumed by flame, and I thought I heard him say these words: “Vide cor tuum.”¶ And when he had been there a while, it seemed that he awakened the sleeping lady, and he was doing all he could to get her to eat the thing burning in his hands, which she anxiously ate. Then his happiness turned into the bitterest tears, and as he cried he picked up this woman in his arms, and he seemed to go off toward the sky. At which point I felt more anguish than my light sleep could sustain, and I woke.
And immediately I started to think, realizing that the hour in which this vision appeared to me had been the fourth hour of that night, in other words the first of the last nine hours of night. Thinking over what had happened to me, I decided to relate it to several of the well-known poets of that time, and since I already had some experience in the art of writing verse, I decided to compose a sonnet in which I would greet all of Love’s faithful. And asking them to interpret my vision, I wrote to them about what I had seen in my sleep. And then I started the sonnet “To all besotted souls.”
To all besotted souls, my counterparts, to whom these verses come with a petition to write me what you think of my rendition: greetings in Love, the lord of open hearts. Already nearly over by a third were all those hours lit up by stars till morning, when Love appeared before me without warning. I shudder thinking what his presence stirred. It seemed that he was overjoyed in keeping my heart in hand, his arms a gentle bed for someone draped in silk—my lady sleeping. He woke her. And, respectfully, he fed that burning heart to her, who shook with dread. Then, as he turned to leave, I saw him weeping.
This sonnet is divided into two parts. In the first part I offer my greetings and ask for a response; in the second part I indicate what ought to be responded to. The second part begins with, “Already nearly.”
* “Here is a god stronger than I, who comes to rule me.”
† “Your beatitude [or bliss] has now appeared.”
‡ “What misery, since from now on I will often be blocked [in my digestion]!”
§ “I am your lord.”
¶ “Behold your heart.”
Many people responded to this sonnet and gave various interpretations of it. One of the responses came from somebody whom I consider my best friend, who wrote a sonnet beginning, “You saw, it seems to me, the whole of worth.” His discovery that I was the one who had sent the poem was, so to speak, the beginning of our friendship. The correct interpretation of my dream was not understood by anyone at first, but now it is clear to even the most simple-minded.
From the time of this vision, my natural spirit started to be hindered in its functioning, since my soul was completely absorbed in thinking about this most gracious of women. Thus in no time at all I grew so frail and weak that the sight of me weighed on many of my friends. And many spitefully curious sorts of people hunted for ways to find out the very thing about me that I wanted to keep hidden from others. Aware their questions were malicious, I responded to them—through the will of Love, who commanded me in keeping with reason’s counsel—that Love was the one who had ruled me in that way. I said Love since my face showed so many signs of him that disguising it wasn’t possible. And when they asked me, “Over whom are you so wrecked by Love?” I would look at them smiling and tell them nothing.
It happened one day that this most gracious of women was sitting in a place where words about the Queen of Glory were being listened to, and I was positioned in such a way that I saw my beatitude. And in the middle of a direct line between her and me was seated a gracious and very attractive woman who kept looking at me wondering about my gaze, which seemed to rest on her. Many people were aware of her looking, and so much attention was being paid to it that, as I was leaving the place, I heard people saying, “Look at the state he is in over that woman.” And hearing her name I understood they were talking about the woman who had been situated midpoint in the straight line that proceeded from that most gracious lady, Beatrice, and reached its end in my eyes.
Then I felt relieved, confident my secret had not been betrayed that day by my appearance. And immediately I thought of using the gracious woman as a screen for the truth, and I made such a show over it in a short amount of time that most people who talked about me thought they knew my secret.
I concealed myself by means of this woman for a number of years and months. And to make others even greater believers I wrote certain little rhymes for her which I do not intend to write down here if they don’t relate in some way to that most gracious lady, Beatrice. And so I will leave out all of them other than something I will write down that plainly is in praise of her.
I tell you that, during the time when this woman was a screen for this great love of mine, I was taken with a wish to record the name of that most gracious of women and to place it in the company of many women’s names, especially this gracious woman’s. And I gathered together the names of sixty of the most beautiful women of the city where my lady was put by the supreme Lord, and I composed an epistolary poem in the form of a serventese, which I will not write down here. And I wouldn’t even have mentioned it if it were not to say what wondrously took place as I was composing it: the name of my lady would not settle for being in any other position, among the names of these women, but that of the number nine.
The woman with whom I had for quite some time concealed my desire had to leave the above-named city to go to a place that was far away. As a result, rather disconcerted over having lost my lovely defense, I felt utterly miserable—much more so than I would have believed possible. And realizing that, if I didn’t speak about her departure somewhat despondently, people would soon catch on to my cover, I decided to lament it in a sonnet, which I will write down here, since my lady was the direct source for certain words in the sonnet, as is plain to anyone who understands it. And then I wrote this sonnet, which begins, “O all ye passing by.”
O all ye passing by along Love's way, attend a while and see if there be sorrow such as I sustain. Please suffer me and listen now, I pray; imagine patiently if I am inn and key to every pain. Not, surely, by my merit's meager sway: by Love's nobility, Love placed me in a life so sweet and sane, I often heard behind me others say: “How did he earn to be so weightless in his heart—please, God, explain?” Now I have lost impetuous delight that all my tender loving treasure lent, and I am indigent because I’m timid when I talk or write. So that, like those who hide impoverishment for shame of how they seem in others’ sight, outside my mood is light, while in my heart I wither and lament.
This sonnet has two main parts. In the first I mean to call on Love’s faithful, with those words of the prophet Jeremiah: “O is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow,” and to ask them to be patient enough to hear me out. In the second part I tell where Love placed me, with a sense different from the one at the end of the sonnet, and I tell what I have lost. The second part begins: “Not, surely, by my merit’s.”
After the departure of this gracious woman, it was the pleasure of the Lord of angels to call into her glory a young woman who was so gracious in her appearance and very much esteemed in the above-named city, and whose body I saw bereft of its soul among many women who were crying pitifully. Then, recalling I had seen her in the company of that most gracious of women, I couldn’t hold back my tears. While I was crying I decided to write a poem about her death, in honor of the fact that I had seen her sometimes with my lady. And I touch upon this in the last part of the verses I wrote, as is quite clear to anyone who understands them. Then I composed these two sonnets, the first of which begins, “Cry, lovers,” the second, “Barbarous Death.”
Cry, lovers, since Lord Love is crying here; listen why he laments: he heeds the plea of women calling Mercy; he can see, outside their eyes, such bitter pain appear, since base Death did its work, harsh and severe, upon an open heart, in injury of that which, other than her dignity, the world must prize in woman, and revere. Listen to how Love blessed her resting-place: I saw him, in a living body, cry beside the dead and lovely image there; and he looked up to heaven, toward the air that noble soul had gone to occupy, who'd been a woman of such winsome grace.
This first sonnet is divided into three parts. In the first I call upon and urge Love’s faithful to cry, and I say that their lord is crying; and I say, “listen why he laments” to make them more disposed to listen to me. In the second part I describe the reason; in the third I speak of a certain honor that Love paid to this woman. The second part begins, “he heeds”; the third, “Listen to how.”
Barbarous Death, compassion's enemy, old mother-misery, decree severe and unappealable, since you're my suffering heart's material that forms my mental pall, my tongue strains hard to blame you bitterly. And if I want to give you infamy, what's needed is for me to write you're just a culprit, culpable of wrong: to all, a fact that's palpable, but now I rouse the gall of those whom love feeds in posterity. Out of this world you've taken what is gracious and everything we prize as woman's best. You've crushed a lover's zest in happy youth while it was most vivacious. I'll not say who she is—there's revelation enough in what her well-known traits attest. And one can't hope for rest with her without first meriting salvation.
This sonnet is divided into four parts. In the first part I call upon Death using some of her various names; in the second, speaking to her, I explain why I am moved to blame her; in the third I admonish her; in the fourth I address an unspecified person, even though in my own mind that person is quite specific. The second part begins, “since you’re my suffering heart’s”; the third, “And if I want to give you infamy”; the fourth, “And one can’t hope.”
After this woman’s death, some days later a situation came up that forced me to leave the above-named city to head toward the place where the lovely woman who had been my defense had gone, although my destination was not exactly where she was, only nearby. And though I was traveling with a large group of people, my appearance made it clear I wasn’t happy about going—even sighs could not release all the anguish my heart was feeling because I was leaving behind my beatitude. Because of this, my sweet lord, who rules over me by the power of that most gracious of women, appeared in my imagination, dressed in the rough and tattered clothes of a wanderer. He seemed dejected, looking down at the ground except for when his eyes appeared to be turned toward a beautiful river of clear running water, flowing beside the path I was on. I seemed to hear Love calling to me; and he said: “I am coming from that woman who has been your defense; I know she will not be returning for a long time. This is why I am carrying the heart I had you give to her; I am bringing it to a woman who will be its new defense, just as this one has been.” And he mentioned her by name—she was someone I knew well. “However, if you repeat anything I have been telling you, say it so no one guesses that the love you have expressed for this woman and that you must now express for another is a fiction.” And once these words were spoken, this imagining of mine vanished all of a sudden, through the fullness of himself which Love seemed to give me; and somewhat changed in appearance, I continued riding along that day, preoccupied and with my frequent sighs for company. The next day I began a sonnet about this experience, which begins, “Riding along.”
Riding along a road the other day— abstracted, rattled, feeling loath to go— I saw Love, dressed in tattered clothes as though a wanderer, walking toward me on the way. His mannerisms made him look astray, his mastery gone; his countenance didn’t show, since he was walking with his head bent low to ward off glances, sighing in dismay. When he saw me, he called my name on cue, and said: “I’m coming from a distant place, where your heart was since it is mine by right. I send it now to serve a new delight.” And then I took so much of him in place, he vanished from my sight before I knew.
This sonnet has three parts: in the first part I tell about how I found Love and how he looked; in the second I relate what he said to me, although not completely for fear of revealing my secret; in the third I tell how he vanished from sight. The second part begins, “When he saw me”; the third, “And then I took.”
After my return I set about trying to find the woman my lord had mentioned on the road of sighs. And, in short, I had soon made her my defense to such an extent that too many people were talking about it indiscreetly—a fact that often troubled me.
This is why, because of the excessive gossip which portrayed me as dissolute, that most gracious of women, who was the enemy of depravity and the queen of every virtue, passing by in a certain part of the city, refused me her wonderful greeting, source of all my bliss.
Changing the subject a little, I now want to explain the miraculous effect that her salutation had on me.
I tell you that whenever and wherever she appeared, by virtue of my hope in her marvelous greeting, no one could be my enemy; on the contrary, I became possessed by a flame of charity that made me forgive whoever had hurt me, and were someone to ask me any question at that moment, my response would have been, simply, “Love,” my expression clothed in humility.
And when she was about to give me her greeting, a spirit of love, destroying all the other spirits of the sensitive soul, would drive out the weak spirits of sight, telling them, “Go now to honor your lady”; and he would take their place. And whoever wanted to know love could do so simply by looking into my tremulous eyes. And when this lovely salve offered me her salutation, Love by no means tempered the unbearably powerful bliss that came over me; rather, by an almost excessive delight it became such that my body, which by then was totally dominated by him, moved like a heavy, inanimate object.
Clearly then my bliss depended on her salutation; it was a bliss that many times surpassed and overflowed my capacity to contain it. Now, returning to the main theme, I tell you that after my beatitude was denied to me, so much suffering came over me that, withdrawing from people, I went to a solitary place to soak the ground with the bitterest of tears. And once my crying had eased a little, I took refuge in my room, where I could weep without being heard; and there, calling on the mercy of the lady of benevolence and grace, and saying, “Love, help your faithful one!” I fell asleep crying like a little boy who’d been beaten. About halfway into my sleep I seemed to see in my room, seated beside me, a young man dressed in the whitest of vestments, who, with an anxious expression, watched me where I was lying. And after he had looked at me for a while, it seemed that he sighed and called me, saying: “Fili mi, tempus est ut pretermictantur simulacra nostra.”**
Then it seemed that I recognized him, since he was calling me the way he had often called me in my dreams; and as I looked at him it seemed that he was crying piteously and was waiting for me to say something. So, gathering courage, I said: “Lord of nobility, why are you crying?” And he said: “Ego tanquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferentie partes; tu autem non sic.”††
Then, as I thought about his words, it seemed to me that he had spoken very obscurely; so that I forced myself to speak, and I said to him: “Why, lord, do you speak to me in such an obscure way?” And he responded in the common tongue: “Do not ask me more than might be useful to you.” Then I started to discuss with him the greeting which had been denied to me, and I asked him the cause of it. He responded: “That Beatrice of ours heard certain people talking about you. They said that the woman I mentioned to you on the road of sighs was being treated by you in an unseemly manner; and so this most gracious of women, who is against all unseemliness, refused to greet you, fearing you were inclined to be unseemly. So, inasmuch as your secret is, in fact, somewhat known to her because it has been in use so long, I want you to compose a poem in which you discuss the hold that I have on you because of her, and how you were hers from the start, ever since your childhood. And call him who knows about it as witness, and plead with him to tell her about it; and I—who am he—will gladly discuss it with her. In this way she will come to see your intentions, and seeing them, she will understand the words of the people who are misinformed. Make it so that your words are a kind of intermediary, so that you do not speak to her directly, which would not be proper. And do not send them without me, anywhere they might be heard by her, but adorn them with a sweet harmony in which I will be present whenever needed.”
And having said these words he disappeared and my sleep was broken. Then, reflecting on what had happened, I realized that this vision had appeared to me in the ninth hour of the day. And before I left this room I planned to compose a ballad, which begins: “Ballad, I wish.”
Ballad, I wish you’d find where Love has gone, that you and he would seek my lady out, and that my defense (the thing you sing about) would be presented by my lord anon. Your movement, ballad, is so debonair that going it alone, the scenes you’d venture to are myriad; but if you want to travel free of care, first find where Love has flown; going if he’s not with you could be bad, since she who has to hear you is so mad, I think, about some trouble I have made: if you showed up without him as your aid, she’d only shun you as if put upon. With sweet music, when you’re with him anew, begin with words like this, after you’ve asked that Mercy acquiesce: “My lady, he who sends me here to you, when you’d like, has this wish, if he’s excused: you heed what I profess. Lord Love is here, who through your loveliness makes him, on cue, assume a different face: as to why he made him eye another’s grace, consider that his heart’s not changed its song.” Tell her: “My lady, this one’s heart has stayed so true and undeterred, to serve you each thought pressed him with its seal: from his first years he was yours; he’s never strayed.” If she won’t take your word, tell her: “Ask Love, who knows the truth for real.” And finally present this meek appeal: that if I’ve bored her with my alibi, she tell me through an envoy I should die, and I’ll obey—a servant’s paragon. Assure Love, who is every mercy’s key, before you take your bow, that he’ll know how to state my rationale: “By virtue of my graceful melody, remain here with her now, and what you think about your servant, tell. If she forgives him since you plead so well, inspire a lovely look announcing peace.” My noble-hearted ballad, when you please, and when you might be well-received, move on.
This ballad is divided into three parts. In the first I tell it where it may go, and I urge it to go more securely, and I say in whose company it may place itself if it wants to go securely and without risk. In the second I specify what it is supposed to make known. In the third I give it permission to go freely where it wants, commending its movement to the hands of fortune. The second part begins, “With sweet music”; the third, “My noble-hearted ballad.”
It is true that someone might object, saying he does not know whom my words are addressed to in the second person, since the ballad is none other than the words I speak. And so I say that I still intend to resolve and clarify this ambiguity in an even obscurer section of this little book. And at that point may whoever has such doubts here, or wishes to object in this manner, understand what is said here.
** “My son, it is time for our false images [or simulations] to be put aside.”
†† “I am like the center of a circle, to which the parts of the circumference stand in equal relation; but you are not so.”
After the vision described above, having written all that Love dictated to me, several contending thoughts started to assail and test me, each of them impossible to fend off.
Among these thoughts, four in particular seemed to wreak the most havoc on any feeling of peace in my life. One was this: the lordship of Love is good because it draws his faithful away from base concerns. Another was this: the lordship of Love is not good because the greater the faith of Love’s devotee the more difficult and painful are the points he has to pass through. Another was this: Love’s name is so pleasant to hear that it seems impossible that its effect on things could be anything other than pleasant, given that names follow from the things they name, as it is written: “Nomina sunt consequentia rerum.” The fourth was this: the woman through whom Love has such a hold on me is not like other women; her heart is not so easily swayed.
And each of these thoughts battled within me so much, they made me like someone who doesn’t know which way to take for his journey—who wants to go but doesn’t know where he is headed. And when I considered the way they all had in common—the one they agreed on, in other words—it was a highly hostile one from my point of view: namely, to invoke Mercy and entrust myself into her arms. And while I was in this state, the desire came over me to write some rhymes, so I composed this sonnet, which begins, “All of the voices vying.”
All of the voices vying in my brain are talking love: such contrast and discord, one makes me wish that Love should be my lord, another says his lordship is insane; one, urging hope, brings sweetness back again, another’s why my tears have often poured. They’ve only joined forces when they’ve implored Mercy, convulsed with fear the heart can’t rein. And then I can’t decide which voice to heed: wanting to write, I start with that . . . then this . . . I’m so far gone in amorous confusion! And if I want to come to some conclusion among them, I must call my nemesis, Madonna Mercy: Shield me in my need.
This sonnet can be divided into four parts. In the first part I say and submit that all my thoughts are about Love; in the second I say that they differ from one another and I outline how they are different; in the third I say what they all seem to agree upon; in the fourth I say that, wanting to write about Love, I do not know what subject matter to focus on, and if I want to focus on all of them at once I will have to invoke my enemy, Madonna Mercy—using “Madonna” here more or less sarcastically. The second part begins, “are talking love”; the third, “They’ve only joined forces”; the fourth, “And then I can’t decide.”
After the battle of various contending thoughts, it happened that this most gracious of women came to a place where many other gracious women were gathered and where a friend of mine brought me, believing he was doing me a great favor by taking me where so many women were displaying their charms. And I, blissfully unaware of what I was being led to, trusting the person who had brought his friend to the farthest point of life, said to him, “Why have we come here to these women?” He said, “To make sure they’re properly attended to.”
It turns out that they had gathered there in the company of a gracious woman who had gotten married that day; in keeping with the customs of the above-named city, they had to be with her for her first meal in the house of her new husband. And, since I thought it would please my friend, I offered to attend to the ladies along with him.
No sooner did I make this suggestion than I thought I sensed the appearance of a marvelous trembling that started on the left side of my chest and spread rapidly throughout my entire body. Then I had to prop myself, surreptitiously, against one of the pictures that ran around the walls of this house; and fearing that someone might have noticed my shaking, I raised my eyes, and looking around at the women, among them I saw that most gracious of creatures, Beatrice.
Then my spirits were so overcome by the force that Love acquired, seeing himself so close to that most gracious of women, that the only spirits left alive were those of vision. And even these remained outside their organs because Love wanted to take their sublime place in order to see the wondrous lady. And although I was not the same as I had been before, I suffered along with these little spirits, who were moaning bitterly, saying: “If this one didn’t dazzle and rout us from our place, we could be seeing the wonder of this lady just as our counterparts in others are.”
I tell you that many of these women, noticing my transfiguration, started to wonder over it, and as they talked with one another they and this most gracious of women were making fun of me. Then my wellmeaning misguided friend led me by the hand out of sight of the women and asked me what was wrong. Having collected myself a little, my dead spirits now resurrected and the ones that had been routed having regained their moorings, I told my friend: “I have set my feet in that place in life beyond which one cannot go with the intention of returning.”
And having left him, I went back to the room of tears, where, crying and feeling ashamed, I told myself, “If this lady knew my state, I don’t believe she would make fun of me like that; in fact I think she would feel mercy.”
And while I was weeping I planned to write some verses in which, addressing her, I would explain the cause of my transfiguration, and say that I understand this cause is not known, and that if it were known I believe she and the others would be moved by mercy. And I planned to write this in the hope it might reach her ears by chance. And then I wrote this sonnet, which begins, “With other women.”
With other women you mock my distress, and never guess, my lady, what gives rise to my appearing alien in your eyes when I am gazing at your loveliness. If you knew, surely Mercy would be less entrenched with what she typically denies, since Love, when I am near you, fortifies, taking on such nerve and brazenness, he blasts my frightened spirits all about, slaughtering some, while others he expels, so he alone is left to look at you. Meanwhile I am changed to something new— another man—though I still hear the yells of anguish from those banished by the rout.
I do not divide this sonnet into parts: since division is only for opening up the meaning of the thing divided, and since the commentary on what occasioned the poem reveals enough, this sonnet does not require division. True, among the words that reveal the occasion for this sonnet some are obscure—for example when I say that Love kills all my spirits, while the visual ones remain alive although outside their organs. And this obscurity cannot be resolved by one who is not, to a similar degree, one of Love’s faithful; and to those who are, it is clear enough how to resolve the obscurity of the words. Therefore it would do no good for me to explain such obscurity, since the explanation would be vain or superfluous.
After this strange transfiguration, a harsh thought came over me and hardly ever left; in fact it continually reproached me. This is what it said: “Since you cut such a laughable figure when you’re near this woman, why do you go on trying to see her? Suppose she asked you this: what sort of answer would you give?—assuming, that is, you had any power left to respond with!”
And to this thought responded another, mild one, which said: “If I hadn’t lost my powers, and were free to the extent that I could answer her, I would tell her that no sooner do I imagine her marvelous beauty than I am seized by a desire to see her—a desire so powerful that it kills and obliterates whatever in my memory might counter its force. And thus past pains don’t dissuade me from trying to see her.” Then, moved by such thoughts, I decided to write something in which, exonerating myself in her eyes for such a reproof, I would also state what happens to me when I am near her. And I wrote this sonnet, which begins, “And when I go.”
And when I go to get a glimpse of you, beauty, what meets me dies in memory. And when you’re near, Love tells me what to do; he says, “If perishing disturbs you, flee!” My face displays the color of my heart, which, swooning deathlike, props itself nearby; and through the drunkenness my shakes impart, it seems the rocks shout raucously: “Die! Die!” The one who sees me sins if she acts cool and doesn’t soothe my soul now stunned by dread, at least commiserating with my plight through mercy (murdered by your ridicule) that is created by the deathlike sight of my eyes, which only wish that they were dead.
This sonnet is divided in two parts: in the first I say why I can’t stop myself from going where this woman is; in the second I say what happens to me as a result of going where she is—this part begins with “And when you’re near.”
This second part can be further divided into five, according to five different parts of the narrative. In the first I say what Love, advised by reason, tells me when I am near her; in the second I show the state of my heart through its copy on my face; in the third I tell how all my self-assurance wavers; in the fourth I say that anyone who doesn’t show me pity is committing a sin, since at least pity would be some comfort for me; in the last part I say why one should have pity, and that is for the pitiful sight that comes over my eyes, whose pitiful sight is destroyed—that is, cannot be seen by others—through the mockery of this lady, which induces others, who perhaps would otherwise have seen this pity, to act like her. The second part begins, “My face displays”; the third, “and through the drunkenness”; the fourth, “The one who sees me”; the fifth, “through mercy.”
After I composed this sonnet, a wish came over me to write something in which I would say four more things about my state, which, it seemed to me, I had not yet explained. The first is that I often felt terrible when my memory set my fantasy in motion to imagine what Love was turning me into. The second is that Love often ambushed me so violently that no life was left in me other than a thought that spoke about this lady. The third is that when this battle of Love attacked me like this, I would go, almost completely drained of color, to see this lady, believing that the sight of her would defend me from the battle, forgetting what happened whenever I drew near such graciousness. The fourth is how it not only didn’t defend me but it actually finished off the little life I had left. And so I wrote this sonnet, which begins, “Over and over.”
Over and over in my mind preside the dark and somber moods Love puts me through. Self-pity broods, so I have often cried, “Alas, do other people feel this too?” For Love assaults me suddenly blindside, till almost all my life has bid adieu; one spirit only stays that hasn’t died, and he remains that he may talk of you. Then I attempt to ease my own malaise, and thus death-pale, fatigued and torn apart, I go to glimpse you, hopeful I’ll be whole. And if I lift my eyes so I can gaze, a seismic shaking starts within my heart that chases from my pulse my very soul.
This sonnet is divided into four parts, according to the four things narrated in it; and since they are explained above, all I will do is point out the parts according to their openings: thus, the second part begins, “For Love”; the third, “Then I attempt”; the fourth, “And if I lift.”
After I wrote these three sonnets in which I addressed this lady directly, since they told almost everything about my state, thinking it best to be silent and write no more since I felt I had explained enough about myself, although from then on I would refrain from addressing her directly, I needed to take up new and nobler subject matter than that of the past. And since the occasion for the new subject matter is delightful to hear, I will write it down, as briefly as I know how.
Because of the expression on my face many people had guessed the secret in my heart. And certain women who were gathered together enjoying each other’s company saw into my heart completely, since they all had been present a number of times when I’d been defeated. Passing near them once, as if guided there by Fortune, I was called over by one of those lovely women—one whose voice was especially charming. When I was right in front of them and could see that that most gracious of women wasn’t there, feeling more relaxed I greeted them and asked how I might be of service.
There were lots of women, and several of them were laughing together. Others looked at me as if waiting for me to say something. Still others were talking to each other, one of whom looked directly at me and called me by name, saying, “What is the point of your love for this lady, considering that you can’t endure her presence? We’re curious, since the goal of such a love must be unusual, to say the least.”
After these words, not only she but all the other women there were poised for my response. I said: “Ladies, the point of my love at one time was the greeting of my lady—to whom, I take it, you are referring— since that greeting was home to the blessedness that all my desires were seeking. But because she chooses to deny it to me, my Lord Love, in his mercy, has transferred my bliss to that which cannot fail me.”
Then the women began to talk to each other. And as we sometimes see rain mixing with delicate snow, just so it seemed to me I heard their words fill the air, blended with sighs.
After they had talked to each other for a while, the woman who had spoken to me earlier said, “We would all like to ask you where your bliss now resides.”
I responded, “In words that praise my lady.”
Then the woman added, “If what you’re saying is true, those poems that you wrote about your condition must have been written with some other aim in mind.”
At which point, reflecting on these words and feeling almost ashamed of myself, I left them; and as I went along I said to myself: “Since there is so much bliss in words that praise my lady, why have I spoken in any other way?” So I decided that the subject matter for my poetry from then on would be praise for this most gracious of women. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt I had taken on a theme that was over my head; and I didn’t dare to begin. And I lived that way for several days, wanting to write but afraid to start.
It happened that, as I was traveling along a road beside which flowed a brook of clear water, I was seized by an impulse to compose a poem. I started to consider what manner and style I might use, and thought that it wouldn’t be fitting to talk about her without addressing my words to other women—and not just to any women but to those who are noble and gracious. Then, I tell you, my tongue uttered words almost as if it moved of its own accord, saying: “Women who understand the truth of love.” I made sure to memorize this phrase, overjoyed at the prospect of using it for my beginning. Then, returning to the above-named city, after thinking about it for several days, I started to compose a canzone that starts, “Women who understand.”
Women who understand the truth of love, I want to talk with you a while about my lady—not because I could run out of words and ways to praise her, but to set my mind at ease. Her worth is so above the rest, I feel such lightness in my heart, that if speech didn’t stammer I’d impart new love to those who are not lovers yet. And I won’t speak so far above my head that I go giddy and get lost in haze: instead I’ll talk about her gracious ways— nimbly, approaching her with lightest tread— to you, the amorous and wise of us, since no one else can grasp what we discuss. An angel clamors in the Intellect of God: “My Lord, on earth, for all to see, there is a miracle whose quality arises from a soul that shines on high.” Heaven, whose absolutely sole defect is lacking her, requests her from its Lord, and all the blessed saints are in accord. For us, the only one to testify is Mercy, in the guise of God, who states: “Chosen ones, suffer it for now as best you can, since, while I will it, hope will rest down there, where one about to lose her waits, who’ll say in hell: ‘O you who are denied, I’ve seen the hope of the beatified.’ ” My lady is desired in paradise. I’ll tell you now about her powers too: to look more noble all you have to do is be with her, in public by her side, while Love casts into vulgar hearts an ice that makes their thoughts drop dead from shocking cold. As for the one who manages to hold his gaze: he’s either killed or dignified. And when she meets somebody who is fit to see and feel her power to generate— how she restores the paradisal state— he yields, forgives old hurt, surrenders it. And God has granted her another grace: who talks to her can’t finish in disgrace. Love says of her: “How could it happen that a mortal is so lovely and so pure?” He looks at her and tells himself he’s sure that God is set on making something new. Her pallor’s pearly, with this caveat: it’s not so white that you forget she’s real. Whatever good that Nature can reveal is hers—she’s beauty’s touchstone on review. Out of her eyes, whichever way she starts to move them, issue spirits hot with love, wounding the eyes of those whose gazes move on her, and passing straightway to their hearts. You women see Love’s portrait in her eyes, her face impossible to scrutinize. I know, canzone, you’ll go off and speak with lots of women once I’ve turned you loose. Remember how, wishing to introduce Love’s daughter young and mild, I raised you so; when you arrive somewhere ask those you seek: “Show me the road: I am an accolade for her in praise of whom I’m so well made.” And to avoid a waste of time don’t go where everyone you meet is coarse and dumb; try, if you’re able, only being seen by men and women versed in what you mean, whose guidance will be swift, not burdensome. You’ll find Love living in her neighborhood— tell him about my good points as you should.
To make this canzone easier to understand, I will break it down more meticulously than I have done with the other poems so far. The poem has three sections: the first section is the proem for the words that follow; the second is the exposition itself; the third is more or less a handmaid of the words that precede it. The second begins: “An angel clamors”; the third, “I know, canzone.”
The first section is divided into four parts. In the first I state whom I want to talk about—my lady—and my reason for speaking. In the second part I describe my subjective state when I think about my lady’s merits, and what I would say if I did not lose courage. In the third I specify what I might say about her that wouldn’t be inhibited by my lack of courage. In the fourth, again naming the addressees of my poem, I state my reason for addressing them. The second part begins, “Her worth is so”; the third, “And I won’t speak”; the fourth, “to you, the amorous and wise of us.”
At the section beginning with, “An angel clamors,” I begin to speak directly about my lady. This section has two parts: in the first I describe how she is perceived in heaven; in the second I describe how she is perceived on earth, beginning with, “My lady is desired.” This second part is further divided into two. In the first I speak about the nobility of her soul, describing some of the effects that its powers have; in the second I speak about the nobility of her body, describing some of its beauties, beginning with, “Love says of her.”
The second part is further divided into two. In the first I mention beauties associated with her whole body; in the second I speak about beauties associated with specific parts of her body, beginning with, “Out of her eyes.”
This second part is further divided into two. In the first I speak about her eyes, which are the source of love; in the second I speak about her face, which is the aim of love. To discourage any suspicion of wantonness, I ask my readers to recall what I explained earlier: that my lady’s greeting, which was the act of her mouth, was the aim of all my desires as long as it was available to me.
Then, beginning with, “I know, canzone,” I add a stanza that is like a handmaid to the others, one in which I state my wishes for my canzone. And since this last part is easy to understand I will not bother to divide it up.
I will add, nevertheless, that to further clarify the sense of this canzone it would be necessary to use still subtler divisions. However, it does not bother me if anyone who is not insightful enough to understand the poem by using the divisions already provided leaves off trying, since in fact I fear I have already communicated its meaning to too many people simply by analyzing it as I have—assuming, that is, it should ever have a large audience.
After this canzone was fairly well known, a friend of mine who heard it was moved to ask me to write a poem about what Love is, having more faith in me because of that previous poem than perhaps I deserved. I thought about how it would be good to expound on the topic of Love after having composed a piece on the previous theme, and since I wanted to oblige my friend’s request, I planned to write some verses in which I would expound upon Love—which is how I came to write the sonnet “Love and the open heart are always one.”
Love and the open heart are always one, the sage has written; neither love nor heart can be until the other is begun, as thought confirms a thinking counterpart. When Nature is enamored it creates them both, Lord Love and heart his habitat inside which love, in hiding, hibernates, sometimes for ages sometimes less than that. Beauty appears then in a woman’s form; wise, pleasing to men’s eyes, the sight of her awakens in the heart intense desire for that which pleases—weathering that storm eventually gets Love himself to stir. Likewise a man whom women can admire.
This sonnet is in two parts. In the first I speak about Love as potentiality; in the second I speak about him as potentiality made actual. The second begins, “Beauty appears.”
The first part is divided into two. In the first I specify what subject this potentiality dwells in; in the second I say how this subject and this potentiality are brought into being, and how one is to the other as form is to matter. The second part begins, “When Nature is enamored.” Then when I say, “Beauty appears,” I tell how this potentiality is made actual in a man, then how it is made actual in a woman: “Likewise a man whom women can admire.”
After I wrote about Love in the above poem, I was taken with a wish to write something in praise of this most gracious of women, by means of which I would show how love awakens through her, and how it awakens not only where it is dormant but also where it is not even in potential: working miraculously, she brings it forth. And then I wrote the sonnet which begins, “My lady makes all gracious.”
My lady makes all gracious with her gaze: bearing the Lord of Love within her eyes, what she looks upon she dignifies. You try to watch her pass: her glances faze the heart. It is impossible to raise your death-pale face. Regret releases sighs when she takes pride and rancor by surprise. Please help me, women, honor her with praise. All humble thought, all lovely lyrical emotion’s born in him who hears her speak— and therefore he who saw her first is lauded. How she appears when smiling: you’re besotted, speech falters and your memory’s too weak before this new and noble miracle.
This sonnet has three parts. In the first I say how this woman transforms potentiality into act in accordance with those sublime eyes of hers; in the third I say the same in accordance with that sublime mouth of hers. Between these two parts there is a brief one which is more or less a request for help with the preceding one and the subsequent one, beginning here: “Please help me.” The third begins, “All humble thought.”
The first part is divided into three. In the first I say how by means of her power she ennobles all that she sees, in other words that she brings Love forth in potentiality where it is not; in the second I say how she transforms Love into act in the hearts of all those she sees; in the third I say what she then brings about by means of her power within those hearts. The second part begins, “what she looks upon”; the third, “You try to watch.” Then when I say, “Please help me,” I explain whom I wish to speak to, calling on the women who may help me to honor her. Then when I say, “All humble thought,” I say the same thing that is said in the first part, with regard to two actions of her mouth, one of which is the loveliness of her speech, the other of which is her wondrous smile; except that I do not say with regard to this latter how it affects people’s hearts, since memory can retain neither it nor its works.
After not many days had passed, as was pleasing to the Lord of glory, who did not hold Himself apart from death, he who had been the father of such a marvel as one could see this most noble Beatrice was, leaving this life, truly went to eternal glory.
Thus, inasmuch as such parting is painful to those who stay and who were friends of the one who goes; and no friendship is so intimate as that of a good father toward a good son or daughter and of a good son or daughter toward a good father; and since this lady was good to the highest degree, and her father, as is rightly thought by many, was good to a high degree, it is clear that this woman was most bitterly grief-stricken.
And inasmuch as, in keeping with the customs of the city mentioned earlier, women with women and men with men come together on such sad occasions, many women gathered where this Beatrice was weeping pitifully; so that I, seeing several women coming back from her house, heard them talking about this most gracious of women and how she was grieving. One of the things I heard them say was, “The way she is crying surely would be enough to make anyone who watched her die of pity.”
Then these women passed by, leaving me so full of grief that here and there a tear wet my face, so that I covered myself by placing my hands repeatedly over my eyes. And if it weren’t for the fact that I was waiting to hear more about her, since I was situated where most of the women passed who were coming from her house, I would have hidden myself as soon as the tears overwhelmed me.
And so I stayed where I was as other women passed by, saying to each other: “Who among us could ever be happy again, now that we have heard this woman talking so piteously?”
After them, other women passed, saying, “This man is crying neither more nor less than he would if he had seen her, as we have.”
Still others were saying nearby, “Look at how this man is so changed he doesn’t seem himself!”
And so, as the women passed by I heard things said about her and about me. Thinking about it later, I planned to write some verses, since I had a theme worthy of poetry, in which I would put all I had heard these women saying. And since I would have liked to ask them something, if it were not considered improper to do so, I arranged my subject matter as if I had questioned them and they had responded.
I wrote two sonnets. In the first I ask in the way the wish to ask came over me; in the other I give their response, taking what I heard them saying as if they had responded to me.
I begin the first, “You whose expressions”; the other, “Are you that man.”
You whose expressions are so meek and low, your eyes deflected down, revealing pain, where are you walking from that might explain your faces’ hue, which mirrors pity’s woe? Did you see Love awash a while ago in our gracious lady’s eyes with tears again? Talk to me, women, in my heart it’s plain, because I see no baseness as you go. And if you come from such a mournful scene, please stay with me a while, by your good grace; don’t hide a thing from me of how she’s been. I see your eyes in tears, and I see such disfigurement in each returning face— my heart is trembling seeing just that much.
This sonnet is divided into two parts: in the first I address the women and ask them if they are coming from her, telling them that I believe this to be the case because they seem to be coming back more gracious than they had been before; in the second I ask them to tell me about her. The second part begins: “And if you come.”
What follows is another sonnet, as described above.
Are you that man who’s often liked to write about our lady, addressing just us few? Your voice’s tone suggests that he is you, but your figure shows another to our sight. Why are you crying now, in such a plight that you make others feel your sorrow too? Did seeing her in tears mean you can do nothing to cover up your mental blight? Just let us cry and keep to our sad walk (he sins who ever tries to comfort us), for we’re the ones who heard her cry and talk. The suffering in her face so clearly read, any of us who’d gaze at her would thus, attending on her, crying there, be dead.
This sonnet has four parts, just as the women for whom I respond had four ways of speaking. And since they are quite clear above, I will not add anything to explain the meanings of their parts. I will simply indicate where they are: the second begins, “Why are you crying now”; the third, “Just let us cry”; the fourth, “The suffering in her face.”
Afterward, a few days later, it happened that a painful illness came over a certain part of my body, so I was in bitter pain for nine days in a row, which reduced me to such a weak condition that I had to stay put like a paralytic. I tell you that on exactly the ninth day, when I was in so much pain it was almost intolerable, a thought about my lady came over me. And after having thought about her for a while, I went back to thinking about my incapacitated life; and seeing how fleeting it was, even when it was healthy, I started to weep over such misery. Then, letting out a great sigh, I told myself: “There is no escaping the fact that the most gracious Beatrice will have to die some day.” As a result, such powerful turmoil came over me that I closed my eyes and started to suffer like someone in a delirium, imagining things.
As my fantasy started to stray, faces of women appeared, their hair loose, telling me, “You too will die.” Then, after these women, some grotesque faces appeared, horrible to look at, telling me: “You are dead.” With my fantasy starting to stray like this, I came to a point at which I didn’t know where I was. And I seemed to see women walking along with their hair all loose, crying as they went, in extraordinary pain. And it seemed I saw the sun go dark, so that the stars showed a color that made me think they were weeping; and it seemed that the birds flying through the air were falling dead, and that there were tremendous earthquakes.
And marveling over that fantasy, and full of fear, I imagined that a friend came to say: “Don’t you know now? Your miraculous lady has left this world.” Then I started to sob piteously—I wasn’t crying only in imagination but I was crying with my eyes, wetting them with real tears. I imagined that I was looking toward the sky, and I seemed to see a multitude of angels ascending, and they had in front of them a little pure-white cloud. It seemed that these angels were singing in glory, and I seemed to hear the words of their song as “Osanna in excelsis”—Hosanna in the highest—and it seemed I heard nothing else.
Then it seemed that my heart, where so much love was, said to me: “Truly our lady lies dead.” And at this I seemed to go to see the body in which that most noble and beatified soul had been; and the straying fantasy was so intense that it showed me this lady dead; and it seemed that women were covering her—that is, her head—with a white veil. And it seemed that her face had such a humble look that it seemed to be saying: “I am gazing upon the very source of peace.”
In this fantasy, so much humility came over me by seeing her that I called on Death, saying: “Sweet Death, come, and don’t be cruel to me, for you must be gracious, having been in such a place! Now come to me; I desire you so much, as you can see, that I already have your color.”
And when I had seen all the mournful rites that are customarily done with the bodies of the dead, it seemed that I returned to my room, and there I seemed to be looking toward the sky; and my fantasy was so strong that, weeping, I started to say with my actual voice: “O beautiful soul, blessed is he who sees you!”
And once I had said these words with an agonized tearful sob, calling on Death to come to me, a young and gracious woman, who was beside my bed, believing that my crying and talking were only caused by the suffering brought about by my illness, started to cry because she was so afraid. So, other women who were in the room became aware of me, that I was crying, because of this woman’s bursting into tears. And they had her leave my side—she who was joined to me by the closest of blood ties—and drew near me to wake me up, believing that I was dreaming, and they said to me: “Don’t sleep anymore” and “Don’t despair.”
And as they were speaking to me like this, my powerful fantasy ceased at the very moment when I was about to say, “O Beatrice, blessed are you”; and I had already said, “O Beatrice,” when, starting suddenly awake, I opened my eyes and saw that I had been deceived. And for all I called on this name, my voice was so broken by sobbing that these women could not understand me, as it seemed to me; and although I felt thoroughly ashamed, by some admonition of Love I faced them.
And when they saw me, they started saying: “He seems to be dead,” and to one another, “Let’s try to soothe him.” So that they spoke many comforting words to me, and at times they asked me what had frightened me. As a result of which, feeling somewhat recovered and having recognized my unreal fantasy, I responded to them: “I will tell you what happened to me.” Then I told them from beginning to end what I had seen, staying silent about the name of this most gracious of creatures.
Later, having recovered from this illness, I planned to compose a poem about what happened to me, since it seemed to me to be a love theme worthy of an audience. And so I wrote this canzone, “A woman green in years, compassionate,” structured as will be made clear in the division below.
A woman green in years, compassionate, and graced by all her warm humanity, present when I called out to Death in prayer, seeing my eyes so piteously wet and hearing me rave in my insanity, was moved to wild weeping by the scare. And other women, who were made aware of me because she cried with me that day, then sent her on her way, as they drew near to rouse me for my sake. And one said, “Stay awake,” and one, “Why are you filled with such despair?” My baffling fantasy, I overcame as I was calling out my lady’s name. My voice came out so painfully distressed, so broken up by all my choking cries, my heart’s own name was only heard by me. Despite the rank humiliation pressed across my face and showing in my eyes, Love turned me toward them in my agony. My color at that point was such to see, it made them whisper death was on my brow: “Here, let us soothe him now,” the women gently said as they converged. And several times they urged: “What did you see that made your forces flee?” And when I was a bit more reassured, I said, “I’ll tell you, ladies, what occurred. “While I was thinking how my life’s so frail, how brief the interval the years allot, within my heart, Love’s home, I heard Love cry; at which my soul was so beyond the pale, I panted breathless as I had this thought: ‘I know my lady one day has to die.’ With that I felt so full of panic, I, disconsolate, let shut my heavy lids— my spirits, like invalids, so weakened that they wandered off in awe. As if in dream I saw— estranged from truth and consciousness thereby— some women’s faces menacing and glum, repeating: ‘Death will come . . . Your death will come.’ “And I saw many things, grim and abstruse, as I entered in the unreal vision-scene. I seemed someplace—just where, I couldn’t guess— where women walked along with their hair loose, and some shed tears and some unleashed a keen that discharged fiery arrows of distress. Then bit by bit it seemed I saw progress the sun’s darkening when first a star appears, both sun and star in tears; and the birds flying through the air fall down, and tremors shake the ground. A man appeared, spectral and colorless, who said: ‘Come on. Do you know what befell? Your lady’s dead, who was so beautiful.’ “I raised my eyes, all wet with tears I’d cried, and saw, appearing like a shower of manna, angels returning in a heaven-tending spate; and saw a little cloud before them glide, in the wake of which they all proclaimed, ‘Hosanna!’— if they had said still more, I’d tell you straight. Love said: ‘I won’t hide it from you or wait; come with me now to see our lady’s corpse.’ The fantasy that warps transported me to see my lady dead: I saw her there outspread, where women laid a veil upon her state. She had such humbleness in her decease, it seemed that she was saying: ‘I am at peace.’ “I felt so humbled by my suffering, to see such humbleness was traced in her, that I said: ‘Death, I deem you most humane; you must by now be such a gracious thing, considering you have been placed in her, that you are full of mercy not disdain. See? I have come with such a thirst to gain a place with yours, that I resemble you. Come, for my heart asks too.’ I left when I had spent each doleful moan, and when I was alone, I said, as I looked toward the high domain: ‘He’s blessed, O lovely soul, who sees your face!’ And then you women called me by your grace.”
This canzone has two parts. In the first, addressing an unspecified person, I say how I was snatched from an unreal fantasy by certain women, and how I promised them that I would recount it; in the second I tell what I said to them. The second part begins, “While I was thinking.” The first part is divided into two. In the first I say what certain women, and one in particular, said and did because of my fantasy before I had returned to consciousness and truth. In the second I tell what these women said to me after I left behind my delirious state: this part begins, “My voice came out.” Then, when I say, “While I was thinking,” I tell how I recounted this fantasy of mine to them. This has two parts. In the first I narrate this fantasy in the order of its events; in the second, specifying when they called me, I thank them indirectly; this part begins, “And then you women called me.”
After these unreal imaginings, one day, sitting somewhere preoccupied, I felt a tremor starting up in my heart, as if I were in the presence of this woman. Then, I tell you that an image of Love came over me; and it seemed I saw him approaching from where my lady was, and it seemed that he was joyously telling me inside my heart: “Be sure to bless the day that I seized you, as you ought.” And truly I appeared to have so happy a heart that it did not seem to be my own heart at all, on account of its new condition.
And a little after these words, which my heart told me in Love’s own language, I saw a gracious lady coming toward me, noted for her beauty, and she was already very much the lady-queen of my best friend. And this woman’s name was Giovanna, except that she was given the name Primavera, or Spring—because of her beauty, as others believe—and was called accordingly. And coming along after her, as I watched, I saw the marvelous Beatrice.
These women passed near me, one after the other, and it seemed that Love spoke to me in my heart, saying: “That first woman is named Primavera only in honor of today’s coming. I moved the one who gave her that name to call her Primavera, that is, prima verra, she will come first the day that Beatrice appears, after the imaginings of her faithful one. And if you also consider her given name, you will see that it is practically the same as saying prima verra,since her name, Giovanna or Joanna, is derived from that John who preceded the true Light, saying, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ”
And it also seemed that he said: “And whoever wants to give the matter subtle consideration would call Beatrice ‘Love’ because of the great resemblance she bears to me.”
Whereupon, thinking things over, I planned to write a poem to my best friend, remaining silent on certain words it seemed wise to remain silent about, believing that his heart still gazed on the beauty of this gracious Primavera. And I wrote this sonnet, which begins, “I felt, awakening in my heart.”
I felt, awakening in my heart one day, a lovesick spirit that had hibernated; then I saw Love (coming from far away), so glad, my recognition hesitated. “Now think on how to thank me as is fit!” he said, and each word smiled as he was talking. And once my lord had been with me a bit, glancing behind him, toward where he’d been walking, I made out Lady Joan and Lady Bea, moving along in my direction there— one miracle behind the other came. And as my memory repeats to me, “The first one’s Spring,” I heard Lord Love declare, “the second’s so like me she has my name.”
This sonnet has several parts. The first says how I felt the usual tremor stirring in my heart, and how it seemed that Love appeared to me joyful in my heart from far off. The second says how it seemed that Love spoke to me in my heart, and how he looked. The third says how, once he had been with me like this a little while, I saw and heard certain things. The second part begins, “Now think”; the third, “And once my lord.” The third part is divided into two: in the first I say what I saw; in the second I say what I heard. The second part begins, “The first one’s Spring.”
Here, a person worthy of having every doubt clarified might be doubtful, and might doubt my speaking of Love as if he were a thing-in-itself, and not only as an intelligent substance, but as if he were a corporeal substance—which, according to truth, is false, because Love is not a substance in himself but is an accident in a substance. And that I speak of him as if he were a body—indeed, as if he were a man—is clear through three things that I say about him. I say that I saw him coming; and inasmuch as to come indicates locomotion, and only a body, according to the Philosopher, is capable of locomotion, it is clear that I posit Love to be a body. I also say that he laughed, and also that he talked—things apparently proper to man, especially being capable of laughter: accordingly it is evident that I posit him to be a man.
To account for such a claim in the present context, first it must be recalled that in ancient times there were no vernacular love poets, while certain poets who wrote in Latin versified on love; among us, I mean—as perhaps happened in other countries and happens still, as in Greece— not vernacular poets but lettered poets wrote about such things. And not many years have passed since these vernacular poets first appeared; for to write rhymes in the vernacular is as valid, mutatis mutandis, as writing verses in Latin. To see that it is a short length of time, we need only research the language that uses oc and the one that uses si; in neither do we find poems written more than 150 years before the present time. And the reason that certain coarse individuals were famous for knowing how to write poetry is that they were more or less the first to write it in the language that uses si. And the first one who started to write poetry in the vernacular started to do so because he wanted to make his words comprehensible to women, who found it difficult to follow Latin verses. This is contrary to those who write rhymes on themes other than love, inasmuch as this mode of composition was from the very beginning invented for writing about love.
Thus, inasmuch as greater expressive license is allowed to poets than to prose writers, and these writers in rhyme are none other than vernacular poets, it is right and just that greater expressive license be allowed to them than to other vernacular writers. So, if some figure or rhetorical color is allowed to lettered poets, it is also allowed to those who write rhymes in the vernacular.
Therefore, if we see that poets have addressed inanimate things as if they had sense and reason, and also have made them talk—and not only real things but imaginary things as well—that is, they have written that things which do not exist, speak, and that many accidents speak as if they were substances and men, it is right that the vernacular rhymer would do the same, though not without some rational intention, but with a rational intention which then would be possible to open up by means of prose.
That poets have written as stated here can be seen in Virgil, who writes that Juno—the goddess-enemy of the Trojans—spoke to Aeolus, lord of the winds, in book I of the Aeneid: “Aeolus, to you . . . ,” and that this lord responded, “To settle on what you wish / Is all you need to do, your majesty. / I must perform it.” This same poet has an inanimate thing talk to animate things, in book III of the Aeneid: “Tough sons of Dardanus.” Through Lucan, animate thing talks to inanimate thing: “Much, Rome, do you owe, nevertheless, to the civil war.” Through Horace, man speaks to his own knowledge as if to another person, and they are not only Horace’s words but he writes paraphrasing the good Homer, in this passage of his poetry: “Tell me, Muse, about the man.” Through Ovid, Love speaks as if he were a human being, at the beginning of his book calledThe Cure for Love: “It’s war, you declare against me, I see, it’s war.” And this should clarify things to whoever is in doubt over a certain part of this little book.
And in order that some coarse person does not get presumptuous about these things, I will add that the ancient poets did not write in this manner without reason, nor should vernacular poets write like this without having some understanding of what they are saying. For it would be shameful for one who wrote poetry dressed up with figures or rhetorical color not to know how to strip his words of such dress, upon being asked to do so, showing their true sense. My best friend and I are only too well acquainted with poets who write in such a stupid manner.
This most gracious of women, who is discussed in the previous sections, came to be much admired and sought after, so that when she passed along the street people ran to see her—a fact that filled me with wonder and happiness. And when she drew near to someone, such purity of heart took hold of that person he did not so much as dare to raise his eyes or respond to her greeting; and for those who do not believe this fact many could bear witness to it, having experienced it directly.
She went about crowned and clothed in humility, apparently not the least bit inflated by what she was seeing and hearing. Many said, before she had passed, “She is no mere mortal woman; rather, she is one of the beautiful angels in heaven.” And others said, “She is a marvel; may the Lord be blessed who knows how to work such miracles!”
I tell you that she appeared so gracious and so lovely that those who gazed on her sensed within themselves a pure and gentle sweetness they could find no words to describe; nor could anyone look at her without having to sigh at once.
These and other marvelous things proceeded from her by means of her power; so that I, thinking about all this and wishing to resume the style I had praised her with, planned to compose a poem in which I would describe some of the wondrous and excellent effects she brought about, in order that not only those who could actually see her, but others as well, would know of her to the extent that words can convey such things. Then I wrote the sonnet which begins, “So open and so self-possessed.”
So open and so self-possessed appears my lady when she’s greeting everyone, that every tongue, in trembling, falters dumb, and eyes don’t dare to watch her as she nears. She senses all the praising of her worth, and passes by benevolently dressed in humbleness, appearing manifest from heaven to show a miracle on earth. She shows herself so pleasing to the one who sees her, sweetness passes through the eye to the heart—as he who’s missed it never knows. So from her face it then appears there blows a loving spirit, as if spring’s begun, which breathes upon the soul and tells it: Sigh.
This sonnet is so simple, because of what is said before it, there is no need to divide it up. So, leaving it behind, I will add that my lady came to such renown that not only was she honored and praised but many other women were honored and praised on her account. So that, seeing this and wanting to show it to any who did not see it with their own eyes, I planned again to write a poem in which this would be treated; and I wrote another sonnet, beginning, “To see my lady among other women,” which describes her effects on others, as will be apparent in its division.
To see my lady among other women is all the blessedness there is to see. The women with her have to give a hymn in gratitude to God for grace that He made lovely, and her beauty’s so abrim with power it doesn’t rouse their jealousy, but rather dresses them, like her, in human vestments of faith, and love, and dignity. The sight of her makes humble all that’s near; she doesn’t hoard her beauty, but shares praise with every woman she’s companion of. Her bearing is so noble and sincere, people can hardly call to mind her ways before they sigh in reveries of love.
This sonnet has three parts. In the first I specify the people among whom this woman appeared most marvelous; in the second I say how gracious her company was; in the third I say what effects she brought about in others by means of her power. The second part begins, “The women with her”; the third, “her beauty’s so abrim.” This last part is divided into three. In the first part I say what effects were brought about in the women, that is, in relation to themselves; in the second I say what effects were brought about in them in relation to others; in the third I say how not only in the women but in all people, and not only in her presence but even in recalling her presence, she brought about wondrous effects. The second begins, “The sight of her”; the third, “Her bearing is.”
After that, one day I started to consider what I had said about my lady—in the two preceding sonnets, that is—and when I realized that I had not mentioned the effects which her influence was bringing about in me at the present time, it seemed that what I had written was not enough. And so I planned to write a poem in which I would say how I seemed to be susceptible to her influence, and how her power influenced me. And not believing myself capable of conveying this in the brief space of a sonnet, I started a canzone, which begins: “Since Love took hold of me.”
Since Love took hold of me it’s been so long— he’s made me so used to his sovereignty— that though at first he felt all harsh in me, now he is in my heart as soft as dawn: when he so drains strength that it’s nearly gone and it seems my spirits all have turned to flee, then my fragile soul can only be infused with sweetness till my face goes wan. And Love takes on such power in me like this, that he incites my spirits into speech, which, coming out, beseech my lady that she give me greater bliss. Each time she sees me this takes place anew, so humbly that you can’t believe it’s true.
“How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How is she become a widow, she that was great among the nations!” I was still engaged with this canzone, and had completed the above stanza, when the Lord of Justice called this most gracious of women to glory under the banner of that blessed queen the Virgin Mary, whose name was held in utmost reverence in the words of this beatified Beatrice.
And though it might be desirable at this point to say something about her departure from us, it is not my intention to write about it here, for three reasons. The first is that it is not part of the present topic, if we look back at the proem that precedes this little book. The second is that, supposing it were part of the present topic, my language would not yet be capable of treating it as the subject demands. The third is that, supposing these two conditions were met, it is not appropriate for me to write about it, since such writing would put me in the position of singing my own praises, a thing which is after all reprehensible, whoever does it: and thus I leave this subject to another commentator.
However, since the number nine has occurred many times in the preceding words—clearly not without reason—and since this number clearly had an important place in her departure, something must be said about it, given that it seems to fit the topic. So, first I will speak about the place which it had in her departure, and then I will provide precise reasons as to why this number was such a friend to her.
I tell you that, according to the custom of Arabia, her wholly noble soul departed in the first hour of the ninth day of the month; and according to the custom of Syria, she departed in the ninth month of the year, since the first month there is Tixryn the First, which for us is October; and according to our custom, she departed in that year of our indiction—that is, the years of our Lord—in which the perfect number had come round nine times in that century in which she had been placed in this world, and she was a Christian of the thirteenth century.
One reason this number was such a good friend of hers could be this: inasmuch as, according to Ptolemy and according to Christian truth, nine are the heavens in motion, and, according to common astrological opinion, the said heavens influence life down here according to their combined disposition, this number was her friend in order to make it understood that all nine motioning heavens utterly, perfectly harmonized with one another at the moment of her conception.
This is one reason. But thinking more subtly, and according to infallible truth, she herself was this number—she bore a resemblance to it—by which I mean the following. The number three is the root of nine, since it makes nine by itself, without any other number, as we see plainly in the fact that three times three makes nine. Therefore, if three by itself is the factor of nine, and the factor of miracles multiplied by itself is three—that is, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who are threeand- one, this woman was accompanied by this number nine to make it understood that she was a nine, a miracle in other words, whose root (the root of the miracle) is none other than the miraculous Trinity.
Perhaps a still subtler person would see a subtler reason in this, but this is the one that I see and that I like the most.
Because she had departed from this world, the entire above-named city was like a widow despoiled of all majesty; so that I, still shedding tears in this desolate city, wrote to the rulers of the land something about its condition, using that opening of the prophet Jeremiah, “How doth the city sit solitary.”
And I say this so others may not wonder why I have cited it above like a preamble to the new material that follows. And if someone chose to admonish me for this—that I do not transcribe here the words that follow upon the ones cited—I excuse myself because my intention from the beginning was to transcribe only the vernacular; so that, since the words following the ones cited are all in Latin, it would be contrary to my intention if I were to transcribe them.
And I know that my best friend, for whom I write this, had the same idea—that I would write it only in the common tongue.
After my eyes had wept for some time, and were so worn out they could no longer vent my sorrow, I decided to vent it with some words of pain; and so I planned to compose a canzone, in which, crying, I discuss her through whom such great suffering had become the destroyer of my soul. And then I started the canzone, which begins: “My eyes, in sorrow.” And in order to make this canzone appear more widowed when it is done, I will divide it up before I write it down; and I will maintain this method from this point on.
I tell you that this forlorn little canzone has three parts. The first is a proem; in the second part I discuss her; in the third I mournfully address the canzone. The second part begins, “Departed is she, Beatrice”; the third, “My sad canzone.”
The first part is divided into three. In the first part I tell why I am moved to compose the poem; in the second I tell whom I wish to address it to; in the third I tell what I wish to talk about. The second part begins, “And since I well remember”; the third, “And as I talk of her.”
Then when I say, “Departed is she, Beatrice,” I discuss her. I divide this into two parts. First I tell why she was taken from us; then I tell how others wept over her departure—this part begins, “Leaving behind her.” This part in turn is divided into three: in the first I say who does not weep over her; in the second I tell who does weep over her; in the third I say what my condition is. The second part begins, “But endlessly to sigh”; the third, “My sighing leaves me anguished.” Then when I say, “My sad canzone,” I speak to this canzone, letting it know which women it may go to, and that it may stay with them a while.
My eyes, in sorrow for my heart’s torment, are weary from the strain of shedding tears, so that by now their perseverance fails. Now, if I want to let my sorrow vent, by which, a little at a time, death nears, I am constrained to speak in words and wails. And since I well remember the details I spoke about my lady while she lived, my gracious women, willingly to you, I’ll speak to no one new, save to the open heart that women give. And as I talk of her I’ll weep, in view of how she went to heaven without warning, and left Love with me in a state of mourning. Departed is she, Beatrice, she’s gone to heaven’s realm, where angels are at peace, and she’s with them, and left you here with me. No quality of cold or warmth has drawn her from us now, the way that most lives cease; instead it was her magnanimity: because the light of her humility passed through the heavens with such dazzling strength that it astonished our eternal Sire, so that a sweet desire to call such wholeness came to Him at length; and from down here He raised her to His choir, because He saw this life of suffering as too unworthy for this noble thing. Leaving behind her lovely lineaments which were so full of grace, that noble soul now dwells in glory in a worthy place. Whoever speaks of her without laments has granite for a heart, so mean and foul no spirit of goodwill can find a space. For want of subtlety, no heart that’s base has mind enough to picture her in thought, and so it never suffers pain to cry. But endlessly to sigh, to mourn, to die of weeping is what’s sought, stripping the soul of what might pacify, by him who sees in thought the nucleus of what she was and how she’s torn from us. My sighing leaves me anguished gasps for breath, when in my memory a sad conceit brings back what made my heart feel self-estranged; and often when I have my thoughts on death, a longing comes to me so mild and sweet, my face’s color is completely changed. And once her image in me is arranged, such pain comes over me in every part, I shudder suddenly awake with woe: and I am altered so, shame cuts me off from people; I depart. In mourning then, alone as my tears flow, I call, “Beatrice, are you really dead?” And calling out her name, I’m comforted. Sighing in anguish while I cry my ache consumes my heart whenever I abscond, such as would pain whoever overheard. And what my life has been like in the wake of her departure to the world beyond, no tongue could render in the spoken word. And so, dear women, now if I were stirred to tell you what I am, I couldn’t say, my bitter life is such a whipping post; and when it’s beaten most, it seems men shun me with: “Just stay away”— the face they look on is so like a ghost. What I may be my lady can infer, and I still hope for clemency from her. My sad canzone, go your way and weep: search out those women and those girls again to whom your sister-kin would once upon a time bring happiness: while you, who are the daughter of distress, go off disconsolate to be with them.
After this canzone was written, a man came to me who, in degree of friendship, is the friend of mine right after the first. And he was such a close blood relation of the glorious one that nobody was closer to her. After he had been talking with me for a while, he pleaded with me to write something for him about a woman who had died; and he faked his words, so that it seemed that he was talking about another woman who had died suddenly. And realizing that he was simply talking about the blessed one, I told him that I would do as he requested.
So that, thinking it over, I planned to compose a sonnet in which I would mourn a little, and give it to this friend of mine, in such a way that it seemed that I had composed it for him. And then I wrote the sonnet, which opens: “Come and take notice of my every sigh.” It has two parts: in the first I call upon Love’s faithful that they might listen to me; in the second I recount my miserable condition. The second part begins, “My sighs, disconsolate.”
Come and take notice of my every sigh, O noble hearts, for Mercy can’t say no. My sighs, disconsolate, arise and go; if not for them, suffering would make me die, my eyes would be my debtors, broke thereby, many more times than I would wish them to, alas, in crying for my lady so that they unleash my heart with how they cry. You’ll often hear my sighs, calling upon my gracious lady, who has gone away to a world deserving of her perfect worth; at times you’ll hear them scorn this life on earth, as envoys for the soul in its dismay: desolate now that its salvation’s gone.
After I had written this sonnet, reflecting on who he was to whom I meant to give it as if it were done for him, I realized that the service seemed paltry and bare for such a close relation of this glorious woman. And so, before I wrote the above sonnet, I wrote two stanzas of a canzone, one actually for this man, and the other for me, although to one who doesn’t consider things subtly both may seem written for one person.
But whoever subtly looks at them sees plainly that different people are speaking, since one doesn’t call on this woman as his lady and the other does, as is clear. I gave him this canzone and the sonnet transcribed above, telling him that I had done it only for him.
The canzone begins, “Whenever,” and has two parts. In the first part, which is in the first stanza, this dear friend of mine and close relative of hers is grieving; in the second part I am grieving—that is, in the other stanza, which begins, “Within my constant sighing.” And thus it seems that two people are grieving in this canzone, one grieving as a brother, the other as a servant-lover.
Whenever I, alas, start to recall that I will never lay my eyes on her I grieve for sans relief, my grieving memory amasses all around my heart such grief, I say, “My soul, why don’t you go away? because the torments that you’ll bear to stay in this world (for you, already martyrdom), have made me numb with fear and fretful breath.” And then I call for Death, so mild and sweet a moratorium: “Now, come,” I beg (so amorously said, that I feel bitter envy for the dead). Within my constant sighing now a sound of pity starts to press, calling on mother Death without a pause: to her my every least desire was bound from when my lady was snatched away by Death’s vindictiveness; because the pleasure of her loveliness, once it had left our sense of sight behind, became great spiritual beauty then, which through the heavens sends the light of love, which blesses angel-kind, and their high intellect, unperishing, amazes, it is such a gracious thing.
On the first anniversary of the day that this woman was made one of the citizens of eternal life, I was sitting in a place where, reminiscing about her, I was sketching an angel on some boards. And while I was drawing, I turned my eyes and saw beside me some men whose rank required that one greet them respectfully. They were looking at what I was doing, and to judge by what was said to me, they had already been there for a while before I realized it. When I saw them, I got up, and greeting them I said, “Someone else was just with me; that is why I was absorbed in thought.”
After they had gone, I went back to my work of drawing the figures of angels. As I was doing this, the idea came to me of composing a poem, as a kind of anniversary memorial, addressed to those men who had visited me. And then I composed this sonnet, which opens: “She had just come,” and which has two beginnings, for which reason I will divide it according to both.
Now, in terms of the first beginning, this sonnet has three parts. In the first part I say that this woman was already in my memory; in the second I say what Love was doing to me; in the third I tell the effects of Love. The second begins, “Love, who”; the third, “They went out of.” This part divides into two. In one I say that all my sighs were talking as they came out; in the second I say that some were saying certain words different from the others. The second part begins, “But those.”
The sonnet is divided the same way according to the other beginning, except that in the first part I say when this woman had come into my memory, something I do not mention in the first beginning.
First Beginning She had just come into my memory, that gracious one whose virtue’s true reward was to be stationed by the highest Lord with Mary, in the heaven of humility. Second Beginning She had just come into my memory, that gracious lady Love is weeping for, the moment that her virtue’s great allure, where I was working, made you look to see. Love, who sensed her there inside of me, awoke within my heart’s demolished core, and told my sighs, “Each of you, out the door!”— at which they all got up in pain to flee. They went out of my chest, weeping, abject, and with a voice that often draws a strain of miserable tears from anguished eyes. But those that issued forth with greatest pain were saying this: “O noble intellect, a year today, you rose to paradise!”
Some time later, in a place where I was reminiscing on the past, I was so full of anguish and painful thought that they gave me an outward appearance of horrible turmoil. Becoming self-conscious about my tormented state, I raised my eyes to see if anyone was watching me.
Then I saw a gracious woman, young and very beautiful, who was watching me from her window so compassionately, to judge by her look, that all compassion seemed gathered in her.
Because when people in misery see compassion for them in others they are quickly moved to shed tears, as if out of compassion for themselves, I then felt my eyes starting to want to cry; and so, fearful of making a show of my base condition, I took myself away from the eyes of this gracious woman.
And then I told myself: “It can only be that in this compassionate woman there is a sublimely noble love.” And so I planned to write a sonnet, in which I would talk to her and put into it all that is told in this prose account. And since thanks to this account the sonnet is quite clear, I will not divide it. The sonnet begins, “My eyes saw mercy.”
My eyes saw mercy that was fathomless appearing on your face when you had seen the old gesticulations and the mien I take on frequently in my distress. Next, I perceived you were about to guess the state of darkness that my life had been, and terror seized my heart that I would then reveal with my own eyes my wretchedness. And I shrank back from you, disturbed by fears that cries from in my heart were on the move; the sight of you had left my heart distraught. And then in my sad soul I had this thought: “Clearly he’s with this woman, that same Love who makes me go around this way in tears.”
Then it came about that wherever this woman saw me, she assumed a compassionate expression and took on a pale color almost like love’s—so that I was often reminded of my sublime lady, who always appeared a similar color. And often, not being able to cry or to express my sadness, I went to see this compassionate woman, whose very appearance seemed to draw forth the tears from my eyes.
So I got the desire to write something addressed to her, and I wrote this sonnet, which begins, “Color of love.” This poem is clear enough, without dividing it up, through the above account of its background.
Color of love and true compassion’s guise have never seized in such a dazzling way a woman’s face, when she sees, day by day, eyes that are noble or tears of painful cries, as they do yours, each time you scrutinize the ache that all my lineaments betray; so that, through you, I’m under memory’s sway: my fear my heart will break intensifies. I can’t control my eyes, by now worn sore, from watching you as often as can be, because they want so much to cry anew. And you arouse their wish till finally they waste away with what they’re longing for. Yet they can never weep in front of you.
By seeing this woman I reached the point where my eyes started to relish the sight of her too much, so that I often felt tormented in my heart, seeing myself as totally loathsome. Over and over I cursed the inconstancy of my eyes, and I told them in thought: “A short while ago you often reduced to tears anyone who saw your wretched condition, and now it seems that you want to forget it in favor of this woman who looks at you, who looks at you for no other reason than that the thought of the glorious lady, whom you usually cry for, weighs on her. But do as you wish, since I will constantly remind you of her anyway, cursed eyes, for never, except after death, should your tears have stopped.”
And after I’d spoken this way within myself to my eyes, sighs overwhelmed me, deep and full of anguish. And in order that this battle I was having with myself wouldn’t stay known only to the wretch who was feeling it, I planned to compose a sonnet in which I would depict this horrible situation. And I wrote this sonnet which begins, “Your bitter weeping.”
It has two parts. In the first I speak to my eyes as my heart spoke inside of me; in the second I remove all doubt, clarifying who the speaker is. This part begins here: “Thus says.” The sonnet could easily be divided still more, but this would be pointless since it is clear through the preceding prose account.
“Your bitter weeping when you were bereaved, O eyes of mine, for such a lengthy spell, made other people shed their tears as well because they sympathized, as you perceived. It seems now you’d efface the tears received, if I myself were such an infidel I didn’t spoil your every rationale, reminding you of her for whom you grieved. “Worries about your falseness fill my head; it frightens me so much I greatly fear a woman’s look who has you in her eye. You mustn’t ever, until death is here, efface your lady, who is long since dead.” Thus says my heart, and then lets out a sigh.
The sight of this woman transported me into such an unusual state that I often thought about her as someone I liked too much. I thought about her as follows: “This is a woman who is gracious, beautiful, young, and wise, and perhaps she appeared by Love’s will so that my life might find rest.” And often my thought took on a more lovesick cast, with the result that my heart gave in to him and his reasoning. And when I had consented in this way, I returned to the sort of thinking that springs from reason itself, telling myself: “God, what thought is this, which in such a base manner wants to console me and leaves me thinking about almost nothing else?”
Then another thought arose, saying to me: “You have been in such a state of tribulation, why don’t you want to withdraw from such bitterness? You see that this is a fresh breath of Love, an inspiration that brings the desires of love before us, and arises from a place so gracious as the eyes of the woman who has shown such mercy toward us.”
At which point, having battled like this many times within myself, I again wanted to write a poem about it; and since the battle of thoughts was won by the thoughts that were talking about her, it seemed I ought to address her directly. And I composed this sonnet, which begins, “A gentle, gracious thought”—and I say “gracious” because it discussed the gracious woman, while in other ways it was entirely base.
In this sonnet I represent two parts of myself, echoing the way in which my thoughts were split. One part I call the heart, that is, appetite; the other I call the soul, that is, reason. And I tell how one talks with the other. And it is evident to those people for whom I like such things to be clear, that it is fitting to call heart the appetite, and the soul reason.
It is true that in the previous sonnet I take the side of the heart against the eyes, which seems to contradict what I am saying here. So let me add that there too I mean “appetite” by “heart,” since the desire was even greater in me to remember my most gracious lady than to see this woman, although I already had some appetite for that, even if it appeared slight: therefore it is apparent that one statement does not contradict the other.
This sonnet has three parts. In the first I start to tell this woman how my desire is directed entirely toward her; in the second part I tell what the soul, or reason, says to the heart, or appetite; in third part I tell how he responds to her. The second part begins with, “The soul says”; the third, “And then the heart responds.”
A gentle, gracious thought that speaks of you comes by to linger with me day by day, discussing love in such a pleasant way he makes the heart consent to share his view. The soul says to the heart: “I wonder who he is that comes to soothe our mind’s dismay, whose power has such overwhelming sway, we have no thought but him when he is through?” And then the heart responds: “O brooding soul, he is a little spirit of new love, who lays out his desires in front of me; his life and all the force he’s master of sprang from the eyes of her, so merciful, who felt distraught about our misery.”
Against this adversary of reason there arose in me one day, at about the hour of nones, an intense imagining that seemed to see this glorious Beatrice wearing the same crimson clothes in which she first appeared to my eyes. And she seemed young, roughly the same age as when I first saw her.
Then I started to think about her; and remembering her as she was in the past, my heart painfully started to repent the desire by which it so basely had let itself be seized for a number of days against the constancy of reason. And once this wicked desire had been driven off, all my thoughts turned back to their most gracious Beatrice.
I tell you that from then on I started to think about her so intently, with all my shamed heart, that sighs often manifested the fact—sighs which as they came out were almost all saying the words that were being spoken in my heart, that is, the name of that most gracious of women and how she departed from us. And frequently my thought had so much pain in it that I forgot both it and where I was.
Through this rekindling of sighs the diminished weeping rekindled in such a way that my eyes seemed to be two things whose only desire was to cry. And often, through prolonged crying a reddish color formed around them, the sort of thing which appears because of some martyring agony one is going through. In this way, it seems, they were fittingly repaid for their inconstancy, and from then on they could not gaze on anyone who looked at them in such a way as to draw them to a similar intention.
So that, wanting to ensure that such wicked desire and vain temptation appeared completely wiped out, in order that the poems I had written earlier could not lead to any doubt, I planned to compose a sonnet in which I would include the gist of this prose account. And then I wrote, “Alas, by force of all my many sighs”; and I said alas because I was ashamed that my eyes had gone off on an empty digression.
I don’t divide up this sonnet, since its prose account makes it clear enough.
Alas, by force of all my many sighs, born from the thoughts my heart has in its core, my eyes are beaten—no strength any more to meet the gaze of other people’s eyes. There’s nothing left of them but two desires to show pain and allow the tears to pour, and oftentimes they weep for hours before Love rings them with a crown of martyrs’ cries. These thoughts, along with all the sighs I spout, grow fearful in my heart, and short of breath, till Love, in suffering for them, faints half-slain; because inside those multitudes of pain the sweet name of my lady’s written out, and there’s no dearth of words about her death.
After this tribulation, at that time when many people go to see the blessed image that Jesus Christ left us as an imprint of his beautiful visage, which my lady sees in glory, it happened that certain pilgrims were passing along a street that runs virtually straight through the middle of the city where that most gracious of women was born, lived, and died.
The pilgrims were very preoccupied, it seemed to me, as they went along, so that as I thought about them I said to myself: “These pilgrims appear to be from a distant land, and I do not think that they have even heard mention of this woman; they know nothing about her. Their thoughts in fact are on other things besides those present—perhaps their friends who are far away and about whom we know nothing.” Then I said to myself: “I’m sure that if they were from a country nearby something in their bearing would appear disturbed as they passed through the middle of the suffering city.” Then I said to myself: “If I detained them a while I’m sure I would get them to weep before they left this city, since I would say things to them that would make anyone who heard them cry.”
Then, once they had passed out of sight, I decided to write a sonnet about what I had said to myself, and to make it more moving I decided to write it as if I had actually spoken to them. And I wrote the sonnet which begins, “Oh, pilgrims walking by.”
I wrote pilgrims in the broader sense of the term, for the word pilgrims can be understood in two ways, one broad and one narrow: in the broad sense, a pilgrim is anyone who is outside his homeland; in the narrow sense pilgrim is used only for one who travels toward the home of Saint James or returns from it.
And it is worth noting that there are three separate terms for people who travel to honor the Supreme Being: they are called palmers if they travel to the Holy Land, where they often carry the palm; they are called pilgrims if they travel to the home of Galicia, since the tomb of Saint James was farther from his homeland than that of any other apostle; they are called romers if they travel to Rome—the place where those I am calling pilgrims were headed.
I do not divide up this sonnet, since its commentary makes it clear enough.
Oh, pilgrims walking by oblivious, your minds, it seems, on something not at hand, can you have come from such a distant land— the way you look suggests as much to us— that you’re not weeping, even as you pass right through the suffering city, like that band of people who, it seems, don’t understand a thing about the measure of its loss? If you’ll just stop, because you want to hear about it all—so says my sighing heart— your eyes will fill with tears before you leave. For she who blessed the city is nowhere in sight: what words about her we impart have force enough to make a stranger grieve.
Then two lovely women sent me a request that I send them some of my rhymes. Taking their nobility into account, I decided to send some poems to them and to compose something new, which I would send along with the other rhymes to more worthily satisfy their request. Then I composed a sonnet that tells of my state, and sent it to them with the foregoing sonnet and with another sonnet that starts, “Come and take notice.”
The sonnet I then composed, “Beyond the sphere that turns the widest gyre,” has five parts. In the first part I say where my thought goes, giving it the name of one of its effects. In the second I say why it goes above, that is, who makes it rise. In the third I tell what it sees, namely, a woman who is honored above; and I call it “pilgrim-spirit” since it goes above in spirit, and since there it is like a pilgrim who is away from his homeland. In the fourth part I tell how my thought sees her in such a way—that is, so essentially—that I cannot comprehend it; in other words, that my thought ascends so far into her essence that my intellect cannot comprehend it; for, as the Philosopher says in the second book of his Metaphysics, our intellect is to those blessed souls as a weak eye is to the sun. In the fifth part I say that, although I cannot grasp the place where my thought takes me—to her miraculous essence—at least I understand this much: all my thought is for nothing but my lady, since I hear her name often in my thought. At the end of the fifth part I say, “dear women,” to make it clear that those to whom I speak are women.
The second part begins with “a new awareness”; the third with “When he has reached”; the fourth with “He starts to speak”; the fifth, “I know he’s speaking.” It could be divided up in still more detail, and thus be more minutely understood, but one can get by with this division so I will not bother to divide it up further.
Beyond the sphere that turns the widest gyre rises a sigh my heart cannot contain; a new awareness, which Lord Love in pain inspires the sigh with, draws him ever higher. When he has reached the site of his desire he sees a woman there, an honored name whose splendor is so luminous a flame the pilgrim-spirit’s rapt, his gaze entire. He starts to speak, but I cannot infer the meaning of the tale, so subtly spun, he tells my suffering heart, which gives him speech. I know he’s speaking of that lovely one, Beatrice, since he often mentions her— that much, dear women, is within my reach.
After writing this sonnet a marvelous vision appeared to me, in which I saw things that made me decide not to say anything more about this blessed lady until I was capable of writing about her more worthily. To achieve this I am doing all that I can, as surely she knows. So that, if it be pleasing to Him who is that for which all things live, and if my life is long enough, I hope to say things about her that have never been said about any woman.
Then, if it be pleasing to Him who is the Lord of benevolence and grace, may my soul go to contemplate the glory of its lady—that blessed Beatrice, who gazes in glory into the face of Him qui est per omnia secula benedictus.‡‡